REMIND ME AGAIN, WHAT’S THE POINT OF THIS SURVEY?

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.”
P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves!

“There is a distance where magnets pull, we feel, having held them back. Likewise there is a distance where words attract. Set one out like a bait goat and wait and seven others will approach. But watch out: roving packs can pull your word away. You find your stake yanked and some rough bunch to thank.”
Kay Ryan, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems

 

One would think that the current pandemic would bring out the best angels in people. Faced with a challenge from a virus that that cares not a wit for the social or economical status of its victims, you would think that public service would become paramount over the furthering of personal agendas. Unfortunately when it comes to the TNDOE and it’s leader Penny Schwinn that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Last week, amidst a growing public crisis, the TNDOE went live with the website allowing parents to start applying for a private school voucher made available through recently passed ESA legislation. So at a time when schools across Tennessee are still wrestling with how to wrap up this school year, the TNDOE is encouraging parents to start making plans for next year’s school term without having a clear picture of what their current school status will be or what next years options will look like. That’s irresponsible and inexcusable.

If you truly believe that students need an exit from their current situation, then you owe it to them to ensure that they are exiting to a place of improvement. I wouldn’t rush into a burning building to save someone without a safety route in mind. Rushing in to lead them from one burning building into another burning building would be considered an exercise in futility by most rationale people. But that’s exactly what the TNDOE is doing, and using taxpayer money to facilitate it.

Schwinn likes to regularly voice her commitment to the service of the whole child. Yet at a time when we have no idea of the extent of the social or economic cost the COVID19 virus will extract from Tennessee’s families, she is demonstrating a willingness to add another layer of potential cost for those that can least afford it. Those families who are paying the highest price during the current pandemic are the very ones being forced to simultaneously plan for both the present and the future. Despite her claims, this does not feel like we are putting students and families first.

Accepting a voucher is not a magic carpet ride to a different realm. Consideration of travel and its expense, family and work schedules, additional expenses, all must be considered and planned for in order to seize the proposed opportunity. Planned for at a time when many families are struggling to figure out how they are going to keep a roof over their head, food on the table, utilities paid, and care for their children while schools are currently closed. There is no assurance that today’s reality will remain unchanged next August.

School districts, despite the governor’s promises, will also have to plan for any loss of students. Lower enrollment means a loss of BEP funds for affected school districts. Initially, there will purportedly be funds provided by the state to offset potential losses, though those will expire within three years. Tennessee’s large urban districts will not recover from the devastating economic blows currently being delivered within 3 years and so contingency plans will need to be developed. Reports are that at present their is a deluge of applications.

Reports are that MNPS alone will lose at a minimum $100 million out of next year’s budget. That means that under the guise of caring about kids, the state is demanding that its 2 most underfunded districts solve the funding hole created by the coronavirus while simultaneously planning for another reduction in resources in the near future. In essence, what the Governor and Schwinn are asking is that 97% of the students in Nashville and Memphis sacrifice for the potential benefit of less than 3% of those cities students. Man, that is bad math.

As if that wasn’t enough to be disgusted about, the end of the week brought the release of a survey supposedly commissioned by the TNDOE about how money’s included in the recently passed Federal CARES act should be utilized. I say supposedly because the distribution of the survey was initially done entirely through social media and included an introductory paragraph that gave very little explanation for its purpose or the scope of fund utilization. It simply stated that the department of education was interested in soliciting information on how best to utilize funds for recovery from the effects of COVID-19.

It was implied that the questionnaire was coming from the DOE, and being housed on the official TN.GOV server gave that implication credit, but nowhere in that brief introductory explanation was it ever implicitly stated that this was an official request from TNDOE. Neither Schwinn’s signature, nor that of any other department of education official, is displayed.

Earlier in the year Amplify, home to CKLA, was able to access the state’s official communications network in order to solicit participants in survey they were conducting. What’s the assurance that this isn’t a similar incidence?

The tight relationship between “advocacy groups” like SCORE, Tennesseans For Student Success, and TennesseeCAN -the old StudentsFirst Tennessee posse – and the department of education is well documented. The former director of policy and strategy for TennesseeCAN, Charlie Bufalino, is now the Department of Education’s chief liaison to state lawmakers on legislation and policy and TennesseeCAN’s former communications director serves in the same role currently for the TNDOE. The strategies explored through the survey are also strategies supported by the aforementioned groups – vouchers, virtual schools, extended day, summer school.

Here are somethings that the survey doesn’t tell you, that you should know. The money that is being referenced is money set aside for schools through the recently passed federal CARES act (Federal COVID-19 Stimulus Package). It is estimated that Tennessee will receive approximately $260 million dollars. There are some stipulations though.

Ninety percent of that 260 million is to be allocated to LEA’s according to their proportion of Title 1 funding. That means that roughly 45% of money belongs to the four major urban districts – Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis. Shelbyville currently receives roughly 23% of Title 1 monies distributed in Tennessee, with Nashville getting 12%, and Knoxville and Chattanooga getting 6 and 4 percent respectively.

The LEA’s are allowed to use that money as they see fit, independent of what the TNDOE thinks. There is a long list of purposed purposes that include everything from cleaning schools, to provide for mental health needs, to distance learning. As a final caveat, the CARES act approves the usage of funds for anything outlined in ESSA legislation. The survey offers a very limited purview of what these federal monies can be used for and attempts to limit the potential scope of usage. In other words, the federal government is attempting to put the money in the hands of those that best know how to apply it and Schwinn through her role as state superintendent is trying to claw it back in order to use it for the department’s initiatives.

What she’s doing is not unlike Governor Lee sending me a survey on how I would like to use my stimulus check and the survey only asked about the mortgage payment, utilies or food. In reality, I’m free to use my stimulus check as I see fit, either on the aforementioned items or as I saw fit. I don’t think Tennesseans would appreciate Governor Lee trying to dictate how they use their federal stimulus money, and I think Tennessee school districts should probably feel the same about Ms. Schwinn’s efforts.

Now it would be one thing if the department’s initiative were an accurate representation of the general assembly’s expressed initiatives, but there is no indication that is the case. During discussions over HB 3222 – the reading bill – it quickly became apparent that legislators and the DOE were not marching in lockstep. Several lawmakers went as far as to raise concerns about the lack of alignment between the TNDOE and the general assembly. I think it’s safe to say that once again, Schwinn is placing her agenda ahead of the General Assembly’s.

To be fair, there is roughly $26 million available in the federal stimulus package to be used at the department’s discretion, but I would think they would want to follow federal lawmakers’ intent and use the money in a support role and not a dictatorial one.

The reaction to the survey by stakeholders was a predictable one – they were pissed. Negative responses flooded social media. As a result, the survey was quickly edited. A new introductory paragraph was written, while several questions were axed and those remaining were altered.

Despite the alteration, the distribution of the survey continued, without any acknowledgment of the changes, let alone an explanation for the survey or its intended purpose. Late Sunday some of the department’s sympathizers tried to float the idea that the changes were in an effort to be responsive to stakeholders’ concerns. It still remains unclear why the department would be so responsive to stakeholders’ desires after the fact when they paid them no mind before releasing the survey.

Furthermore, there was no explanation forthcoming how the answer of those prior to changes will count next to the new survey responses. If the department was really listening, they’d stop the current survey, produce a new and appropriate one, and apologize to stakeholders. Instead by their actions, they are sending a clear message that they didn’t think Tennesseans would be smart enough to catch the changes, and even if they did, they’d have no real recourse.

Giving further context to the weekend survey are reports that at Friday’s superintendent teleconference, Schwinn spoke to her desire to either hold mandatory summer school, extend the school year or extend the school day. Superintendents weren’t given more clarity because she never entertained questions. The survey reinforces that she is intent on pursuing all three options.

I always say that one time is an incident, two times a pattern, and three times makes it a habit. It’s crystal clear that the Tennessee Department of Education is making a habit of dictating to LEA’s as opposed to supporting them. That is a lot of centralized power for a department that has offered little evidence that it can successfully execute the most basic of functions.

That’s not a knock against the employees of the department, the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of leadership. There are still some talented people working for the TNDOE, unfortunately, they are for the most part either being pushed out or co-opted by those lesser talented folks. Hopefully, when the general assembly comes back into session state lawmakers will continue their quest for answers and perhaps begin to consider other options for department leadership. The expiration date for the current leadership crop is fast approaching.

QUICK HITS

In all the hoopla, I don’t that I ever managed to publically congratulate MNPS Chief of Staff Hank Clay and his wife Hayley on the latest addition to their family. Henry Samuel made his entry to the world on March 26. Everybody is healthy and we couldn’t be happier for the Clays. I hope they’ll forgive my oversight.

The coronavirus has had a profound impact on school board meetings. Governing bodies are having to turn to digital platforms in order to conduct meetings. While most are still adhering to transparency guidelines, for some it has been a struggle. Per Chalkbeat TN, Memphis is one such place,

Before COVID-19, public board meetings in Tennessee essentially required a physical quorum — enough members had to attend in person for a meeting to proceed. As the virus’s spread limited public gatherings, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order March 20 allowing public bodies to meet electronically through video or telephone conference call. 

Agencies are supposed to make “reasonable efforts” to give the public live access to meetings and make recordings available within two days if that isn’t possible.  

One week after Lee’s order, the Memphis school board met privately by Zoom video conference, its first gathering since the COVID-19 outbreak closed school buildings. 

Contacted after a Chalkbeat reporter learned of the meeting, a Shelby County Schools spokesperson said the meeting involved an attorney-client matter related to adhering to federal laws on educating students with disabilities during the crisis. She later said that information was incomplete and did not include all of the meeting topics.

The MNPS School Board canceled it’s meeting at the end of March. It’s next is scheduled for April 14th.

Andy Spears at TNEd Report runs down the candidates in the upcoming MNPS School Board Race. We’ll be diving into the races more in the near future.

PET Executive Director JC Bowman recently published an Op-ED piece that addresses the changing landscape of public education. It’s a piece full of insightful observations, none more than the view he offers of testing and the role it plays in our educational system,

The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Since 2012 Tennessee has had one misstep after another in testing, with notable exceptions. We understand testing and assessment have been waived by the state and federal government for 2020. At no point were any of the testing issues the fault of students or educators. We should pursue reliable standardized tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. However, when we make decisions based on unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state. Perhaps it is time we re-evaluate and have a public discourse over the cost of assessment and exactly what role and purpose we seek from high stakes testing and the results we seek as a society. Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. No single test should be a determinant of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success.

In contrast, Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover offers his insight on how we should proceed. Not surprisingly, testing plays a pivotal role in his world view, along with a recommendation to keep all current students in Title 1 school in their same grade for next year,

So when schools reopen in the fall, these students should remain in their current grade and, ideally, return to the familiarity of their current teacher. (Other types of schools — including affluent schools, middle schools and high schools — may also want to consider a similar approach.) The first order of business will be to attend to the social, emotional and mental health needs of their children and to reestablish supportive and comforting routines.

Then teachers should develop individualized plans to fill in the gaps in kids’ knowledge and skills and accelerate their progress to grade level. The use of high-quality diagnostic tests will be critical in assessing how much ground has been lost in reading and math. Students who are assessed as ready for the next grade level can move onward.

It’s an interesting proposition but fails to note that the majority of the current missed time would have been spent on test prep and standardized testing. If given a choice between the two views, I’ll certainly take the former over the later. Thank you J.C.

POLL RESULTS

Let’s take a look now at your responses to this week’s poll questions. The first question asked how you’d rate your current mental state in light of stay at home orders. The leading answer with 28% of the responses was “generally positive”. “High levels of anxiety, broken by spells of calm”, wasn’t far behind though with 26% of the vote. The importance of maintaining your mental health as the crisis drags on can not be overstated. Here are some tips for teachers from Danny Steele via Twitter,

1) Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s not a time for perfection; it’s a time for grace.

2) The students would still love to hear from you. Stay connected if you can.

3) Take care of yourself and your family. They’re still your #1 priority.

I whole-heartedly concur. Here are the write-in votes.

Zen like 1
Becoming increasingly worried. 1
Praying for all to stay inside and take this seriously 1
Excellent. No work stress makes me feel human.

Question 2 asked you to grade Governor Lee’s performance during the pandemic. Apparently, y’all ain’t impressed. ^8% of you gave him a non-passing grade and only 10% of you gave him a C. Hopefully, he’ll pick it up here in the next month. Here are the write-in votes,

He sucks at his job 1
What’s the letter that denotes bloody hands? F? 1
Blood on his hands. 1
Incompetent

Question 3 asked, how many nights you were eating out. Obviously, I was referring to take out or delivery. The replies to this one surprised me a bit, I expected fewer of you to be cooking. In fact it was the opposite, 40% of you answered almost never. Once and twice a week tied for number 2 with 18% apiece. Here are the write-in votes,

0 2
None 2
Takeout only 1
zero 1
Never 1
We cook and eat together 1
None. Why risk it? 1
None at all, way too risky for me. 1
never 1
Zero 1
We had delivery once since after at home order

That’s it for now, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

 



Categories: Education

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